Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Chitrakote Waterfall

Journeying from Raipur in the morning and driving past beautiful country, we reached Chitrakote in Bastar district around four thirty in the evening. We drove on a metallic road in the direction of an imposing state government guest house barricaded by a powerful iron gate.

A thin man guarding the gate tells us that the guest house is not open to lay visitors. To enter the compound the permission of the collector is required. The Collector's office is  easily two hundred kilometres away.  Rooms were available, but since we did not know the collector and had not known that we needed his sanction to stay in the guest house, our luck had finally run out.

When we pleaded that we needed  a place to stay on for the night in Chitrakote, we were directed to the premium resort down the road, where accommodation was available  at a price for citizens  unacquainted with Collectors. We drove the kilometre to the resort  alongside the  guesthouse, further down the road and discovered a reception centre and dining hall at the extreme end.  The  breakfast at New Delhi  airport early in the morning had lived out its utility and our need for both food and shelter were by now, dire.

The young man at the desk offered to cook us some food  and we gratefully placed an order. Accommodation  was  however proving difficult to access. Apparently, the resort only accepted online bookings.We had none. They had one room free, but they couldn't give it to us because we didn't have a booking. The shelter debate was postponed till we finished our meal, then we begged and pleaded with the chef cum receptionist for accommodation. He relented after a few phone calls and after putting in our bags in a deluxe villa room, we walked out of the room to see the waterfall in the evening.

 The Chitrakote waterfall is sepia tinted in real life and in pictures. It is a stunning sight and  the  magnificent expanse of falling water travelling across  deep channel and a wide gully is  breathtaking. Near the waterfall are two large trees, inhabited by bats that swirl and fly around the tree tops, in the manner of bees around homing hives. Several bats hang down from the branches,  looking pretty much like shreds of black fabric.

The access to the waterfall is a tacky compound A woman sits selling knives with bamboo handles and other odds and ends. A tea shanty  faces her.  No information can be gathered about this  site, which is ostensibly  our national heritage. Possibly, this is  reclaimed and rediscovered country. Across the road,  where the state owned guest house blocks off the general view of the waterfall,  we order tea  at a tea shanty, next to a new outlet selling ice cream and chips.   A little down the road, adjacent to the guest house is a  makeshift stall where food  can be cooked on order, manned by a thin woman.
As we sit in an open courtyard,  lined  with  multi-coloured  left over tiles, a red  mallard, who is possibly a recent  immigrant, performs for passers by.  We throw him some roasted kala channa, but he ignores our overtures of friendship and continues with his  solo act.. We drink our tea, and watch him.  A prancing  red headed mallard  is an extraordinary visitor  in our everyday life.

 A Shiva  temple with a shiny white bull,   possibly desirous of  gazing at the waterfall but constrained by the guest house,  sprawls  on the other end of the road. Beyond the ramshackle marketplace,  fertile fields, green with the labour of their owners, stretch out  to the end and are  ranged against the sky, The walk back to the  premium resort, firmly cordoned off and gated is delightful. We gaze at the deep gorge, running  a long way  down  the mountain. The resort has built a sturdy wall at the edge of the mountain but  is dissatisfied with this. Now . large  iron girders  are being put up at intervals. These will hold up some variant of a mesh with square metal netting through which  visitors who can pay for it, will get to view the  Indravati river  as it weaves its way, expansively accepting  abundant bounty from the waterfall.

 From our room at the resort, we view the waterfall, which is lit up at night. It continues to look ethereal, and  the privilege of   a private view of gorgeous cascades of water from  our own balcony is not lost upon us. The next day, early in the morning,  troops of sparrows  wheel around the  trees at the resort, reminding  us to hurry and make the most  of the day. We trudge back to the waterfall and  it is time to  say goodbye.

The Chitrakote falls is located in the  vicinity of  the Kanger Valley National Park,  and includes  another waterfall, caves and  gorgeous stretches of  dense jungle,  now under  state jurisdiction.  This waterfall and  the  gorge surrounding it represent national wealth. Surely , as a nation  we must  be  mature enough to ensure that  this spell-binding beauty is  accessible to every visitor who comes by?  How can  the  collector's bungalow  occupy  a prime stretch of the view? Why is  the view of the  gorge and falls  uptil the last viewable stretch cordoned off and presided over  by  a luxury resort?

 In keeping with the  plan  of the national park, all this should  have been unfettered territory, available to the ordinary citizen, to stroll, view and revel at will,  Why should administrative offices and guest houses and  luxury resorts   indulge in  such blatant  land grab? The state guest house obstructs the view and is an encroachment  that has neither aesthetics nor national interest at heart. When places of extraordinary beauty in our country remain  the  elite  playing grounds of the  bureaucracy and the well heeled private citizen, we are forced to demur because this is not the heaven of  freedom that our founding fathers dreamt of.

Made In India- Gazette

Two years ago, on the threshold of a new national election,  the University of Delhi  was in spate.  The vice -chancellor, wielding the gauntlet of power, had been running amok. His associate, the pro-vice-chancellor, stepped down and retreated inexplicably,  into an FMS cell. The rest of the vice-chancellor’s team, personally  recruited, surrounded him and  sang   ceaseless hosannas.  In fact, such is the aura of a Vice Chancellor in office that teachers from undergraduate colleges   shunned food and drink till the very end , identifying with his  blundering ambitions.  Over high drama, with massive student participation, the FYUP was rolled back.

  University teachers went back to work with good intentions hoping  to restore university life to normalcy. The trouble with these good intentions, is that they paved the way to a rather murky  CBCS hell. The university was left to its own devices, with a vengeful  vice-chancellor  hard-driving  the last big nails  into the  coffin of the university. Appointments continued to be  stage- managed  and   retiring teachers  were denied  their rightful dues by throwing in a spanner into  a well-oiled  and efficiently  functioning  pension and provident fund system. 

 The MHRD, has for some years now, conducted itself as one of the last colonial outposts of Independent India: visualizing  its role as braving it out and attempting  to instill  honour and discipline among unruly natives.  Smriti Irani’s homespun headship did not disturb us initially, because Sibal and Tharoor, despite their Indian roots,   were unabashedly dazzled by foreign degrees and the proverbial pieces of silver, lining the coffers of private universities. 

In the  summer of 2015 the University of Delhi   retained  its hostile vice-chancellor and a new  Choice Based  Credit System  (CBCS) that magically spread its tentacles  over the entire university. Why did we not resist this?  Arguably, dismantling FYUP had taken up a lot of our energies and dissipated the rest.  Great discontent and embitterment replaced the fight that had gone out of our lives, along with  all semblance of light.
We crawled awhile in a dark tunnel, supervised by   ministries and commissions suffering from tunnel vision themselves, awaiting  the coming of the new Vice-Chancellor.  He has come, blowing upon his conch, but we cannot see him and he cannot hear us at all. Universities now  recruit Vice-Chancellors and   ensure the  dimming of   spotlights  so  that both  vision and perception become a constant  blur. The machinations in higher education are no longer put in place by one or two whimsical individuals: this is an amorphous, gnawing  force, eventually  reducing  institutions  to rubble. A new Gazette has   unfurled   itself on  staffroom notice boards, offering  solutions to all our problems.  

 Q. How do we deal with increased  student strength,  diminishing infrastructure, non-recruitment of  teachers and vacancies that have not been filled in years? 
A: Combine  two practicals into one, and  make all  tutorials  advisory.  Our prime minister is able to speak to the entire nation whenever he needs to  through one solitary  mann ki baat.  Teachers  should not find  it difficult to  put forward their mann ki baat  to miniscule groups of hundreds.
Increase individual teacher workload  from 14 to 22 and 16 to 24 hours)This will  automatically reduce the number of teachers and  do away with all  problems of recruitment  

Q. Aren’t university teachers in India in any case teaching far more than their contemporaries  in other parts of the world?  
A:  Our rules we must make in India!  Teachers will earn more under the seventh pay commission implementation. They must be seen earning their money; forty hour work weeks indicated at the time of the sixth pay commission, will now be implemented

Q.  Teaching overloads will not help teachers or students.  Traffic rules do not allow overloaded vehicles on the street. Why must students and teachers be put under pressure?
A: Vehicles   are not allowed to carry too much weight. In the case of the university, we have truncated  or thrown out each and every   lode-bearing curriculum. Our schooling systems have failed and so have our vocational training systems. Therefore the Universities must turn into Skill Development Centres.

 Q. For years young teachers have held ad-hoc jobs and have also gone on to raise families without maternity leave or the security of  summer salaries.  Surely this is demoralising and distressful?
A: They were employed under the previous regime.  We have sufficient candidates of our own, so order will be restored soon enough.

Q.    Wouldn’t you   agree that poor infrastructure and lack of facilities   impedes the daily functioning of the university.  
 A: Undue emphasis  is laid on infrastructure.” Lectures can be held behind a banyan tree.” (in the words of a visiting NAAC team)

Q. Classrooms are filled with students way beyond recommended numbers.  Surely, students need mentoring and guidance and ideal studying conditions. Teachers also need to add to their learning.
A: Each teacher shall take on holistic responsibility( the emotional and mental wellbeing)  of  around 25  students each, over and above the  prescribed minimum teaching schedule. This will take make for a productive 40 hour week .    The emphasis will be on teacher- student interaction, and will maintain teacher student ratio. We have also highlighted the journals that will accept research papers that teachers  may wish to write  in their free time. A master plan of research topics is on its way to  standardise research.  We are efficient and we shall deliver.

Some questions still remain unanswered:

The CBCS has not provided the transformative make-in-India  impetus   inundating each  pore  of current government policy in the   academic year that  has recently concluded.  The FYUP has been born again as a  three year program, renamed as CBCS, and is of little academic worth. CBCS is another hurriedly cobbled venture  with  little legitimacy. The English (Hons)Syllabus  is a packed pot-pourri over two years.  At the end of  two years, we hurriedly push students with half-baked inputs into the high temperatures of research production, possibly scorching and burning them for life. This cannot be   the raison-d-etre of   literature or liberal arts programmes.  FYUPs delinquent compulsory foundation  programmes  have been replaced by  banal  AECC compulsories under CBCS.
English writing skills leave much to be desired, going by what has been on display.  Over several years,   the emphasis on the ability to think has been replaced by the skill required to fill in blanks. Important readings, literature, essays and poetry have been shelved, making language and disciplines functional, thereby reducing learning to  limited skill. This USP, entrenched in our schooling system, is now taking over university syllabi.  This is not what we want for resurgent India. We do not want to ‘make in India,’ a soulless and unthinking future, for generations of our young citizens. 

The cruel trick that the CBCS plays by calling itself a choice based credit system is now being  stamped  on all  learning schedules  in the second year. University Departments mandate and select one option in each credit course (that has six to eight options). This is reinforced by Academic Planning Committees and implemented by college departments. The student is taught a truncated main course and has very little choice when it comes to the credit courses as well. 

In the Sciences, students tend to opt  for  credit courses requiring  fewer  hours. This  undesirable and unintelligent   precedent   of privileging  some main courses over others   highlights the  short sighted rules that have been  set in motion.

 Responding to the continued onslaught on Higher education, teachers have put aside differences, taken to the streets, flocked to the GBM, boycotted evaluations, and listened in one voice to the DUTA leadership. This collective show of strength is important and welcome for it will now begin to define us. Long marches and protests await and this will be a grim, protracted struggle.  
“Teachers of the University; Stay United! Else we stand to lose pretty much everything!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Drumstick Medley

I do not know when the drumstick  tree flowers, because I seldom  get to see the tree, unless Susan Visvanathan brings me some  fruit from JNU  or I pay a visit.  However,  I have learnt  that its   botanical name  is Moringa oleifera,  and that sometimes, it can have two flowering seasons in a year.   Friends and vegetable vendors  bring me its flowers and fruit, so I retain the pleasure of savouring them often enough.

In the hot summers  of my-growing-up-years, we travelled to Tamil Nadu.  There was always a Murungai (maram) tree in someone's backyard, or growing in  the back lawns  of  quarters in  suburban  government colonies.   Summer months in May and June were spent foraging for pods on the upper branches of  trees at least fifteen feet tall. This involved getting on to balcony parapets and leaning precariously to grasp one leafy branched arm, while divesting its stem  of , knobbly-jointed  long-finger-like pods.  We called the green pods murungakkai (vegetable of the murungai ) . This  tree is  indigenous  to India, and  a claim can be staked for  southern parts of   India  being the earliest home of the Moringa oleifera. No marks for noticing that murungai(local Tamil name) and Moringa(the botanical name) sound similar!!

Each  murungakkai was cut into two inch sections and cooked with  pigeon pea lentils to give us an exquisitely flavoured sambar.    Grandmothers, aunts and mothers also cut up murungakkai and cooked it in sour tamarind, to give us vetthalkozambu, a thick sour stew made with  tiny whole onions (kutti vengayam) and drumstick pieces and bengal gram dal, transforming the eating of rice into an exotic feast. Dry roasted papad and roasted potatoes and curd rounded out the meal  which was usually the precursor to a more elaborate feast in the offing. Vettalkozambu, in any case, was consumed in small quantities and had a longer shelf life, often turning up the next day as a sauce accompaniment to  sooji  and rice upmas or providing the pickle alternative  in its tango with  curd rice.

The delight of saving up drumstick sections from sambaar and vettalkozambu is a cultural memory for legions of eaters  who stockpiled them on their plates at  mealtimes and savoured them; biting into the  juicy sections and extracting  the  flesh  of the drumstick and its plump seed  from the inedible section of the pod.  The drumstick eating saga didn't stop at this.
 The thin outer pod is chewed into shreds, in the same way as sugarcane sections are. Unless this is done, food satiation levels  seldom reach  requisite plateaus of  pleasure.  Tamarind pulp, infused into the water while cooking  drumsticks  for sambaar and vettalkozambu, is the contributory factor.  At the end of the meal, the  largest stockpile of well chewed drumstick sections  on the plate  defined the victor. This was not altogether  a joyous moment for all those with  smaller debris on their plate. They left the food table dourly, puzzled as to why the victor (who clearly was  allotted  more sections) was favored.

Drumstick  leaves were added to adais ( lentil based dosas) and were  cooked along with moong dal as a  dry leaf and lentil vegetable. They make for delicious  paranthas and pooris and do equally well when batter fried into  bajjis. My friend Benu  Mohan Lal swears  by them as  the ultimate  in flavor  when added to kadi pakoris. The drumstick was also cooked with pigeon pea lentils, ( arhar dal)  coconut, red chillies and ground zeera  and could be relished along with rice or chappatis, after a mustard seed and karipatta chaunk.s

 Living at New Delhi has  introduced me to  drumstick flower  bharta. I  usually make  this  around January, since the flowers surface  in local markets around that time. The recipe  is from my neighbour, Rita Bajaj who has a tree growing on her  Soami Nagar lawn  and a refrigerator  abundantly stocked with frozen flowers and pods.  For the bharta, the flowers need to be boiled in salted water  for ten minutes . The water is drained. In a pan, onions, tomatoes and garlic are added to a little oil and  cooked into a thick paste.  Next peas and cooked drumstick flowers  are added along with dhania powder, zeera powder and red chilli powder.  When fully cooked. check for salt and spices, garnish with a dollop of curd and chopped dhania leaves  and then take off the fire. if the tomatoes are not tart enough, a little amchur  (  green mango powder)helps.

 Of late, dealing with a generation that  instagrams food  in lieu of art and accepts smooth purees  a la masterchef as  de rigueur,  the tearing and chewing of drumstick  sections with the help of  fisty fingers  and teeth , has joined  the rank  and file of  eating techniques that are infra-dig at the dining table.  So, when the drumstick is not tender enough to be cooked whole, I  slit the drumstick, open it out into a flat strip and use a heavy spoon to strip it off the flesh. The shell I  snip into smaller pieces and boil put  water to create  vegetable stock. The flesh makes a nice aloo, onion tomato vegetable, popular in North India with jeera tadka  to which I add some ground mustard seeds( borrowed from recipes from Pashchim Banga, that takes the  dish to a whole new level.

Left to myself, I would put in sections of whole drumstick,  but given the fact that this is now a WHO approved  superfood with an astonishing array of nutrients, ( every article on  drumsticks on the internet provides  celebratory details)  seeing that it is   frequently  consumed remains the  greater priority.

 So, on days when  I'm humoring  the people I cook for, I make a drum stick soup by adding  the drumstick water stock to the flesh of one drumstick, a fistful of drumstick leaves , one tiny onion and some crushed garlic that has been  sauteed in a little butter or ghee. Garnish this with lemon juice and pepper after bringing to a boil and the soup is ready for consumption.

 However, there is no substitute for  the eating solace that comes from extracting pulp from  cooked  drumsticks with fingers and teeth and slowly chewing   small sections into cud.  Some day, soon enough, I plan to go back to  cooking with  whole sections all over  again.